Casing the Joint: Presenters Scout Your Room
"Casing the joint" is a common trope in robbery and heist films. A band of would-be-heisters meet in a dark warehouse and carefully plan the "big job." The gang-leader stabs a finger at a museum blueprint and gives a run-down of the obstacles guarding their prize.
"The security guards make rounds every 30 minutes. There are surveillance cameras ...here...here...and here. The diamond is surrounded by four motion sensors and two laser trip wires."
I'm not suggesting you enter your next presentation suspended from wires and dressed from head-to-toe in black. What we can model from these jewel thieves is their intense desire to know the physical space where they'll do their work. How often do speakers show up at the appointed time and find a room with unexpected features, which severely impact the quality of their presentation?
At a recent Social Media Breakfast (see photo - courtesy of Red Technologies, Buffalo, MN) in Minneapolis, the venue was hailed as a "cool space." However, one feature of the room would have given me pause as a speaker—several rows of narrowly spaced columns in the middle of the room. I wasn't in attendance myself, but it appears the audience at the sides or back of the room had to crane their necks to see the speaker's slides. If I had been a speaker who had "cased this joint," I might have used handouts or considered not using slides at all.
What I'm suggesting is not always practical or possible. The venue may be in a distant location or you may not have time to do the reconnaissance. But I do think it's worth gathering information and thinking about the physical space before you give an important presentation. Armed with this knowledge, you can make deliberate adjustments to your presentation in anticipation of any spatial quirks.
5 Questions to Help You "Case the Joint"
Here are some basic questions to help you gain an understanding of the space paired with ideas for presentation adjustments.
1. What is the size of the room?
Pretty basic, right? Small room? Big room? You can often get the size of the room from a website (in the case of a hotel conference room) or by asking your host. Will the audience fill the room? Will there be "standing room only?"
Presentation Adjustments: If you're presenting to a large audience in a big room, you might review the font size and readability of your content. Think about the people in the back row. Can they read your slides from the back of a grand ballroom? Also be mindful of how people are filling the room. If your audience is a fraction of the room's capacity, encourage them to sit closer to the front.
2. What is the shape of the room?
This may not seem obvious, but there are some oddly shaped spaces out there. Some rooms are used in ways different from their original purpose. I once worked at a company that did all-staff meetings (sometimes more than 100 people) in a long narrow room that was once the lobby of a financial services firm—it was like standing in a long hallway. Needless to say, late arrivals had a tough time seeing the slides (on the portable slide screen) at the far end of the room.
Presentation Adjustments: Depending on the shape, you may consider changing the seating arrangements to maximize audience visibility. Stand at various places in the room to determine the sight lines of the audience. Review your presentation and adjust content to accommodate people in the odd corners of the room. You might even pursue some out-of-the-box solutions like offering two sessions to smaller audiences rather than cram a large audience into an unworkable space.
3. What are the seating arrangements?
This may be one of those features you have no control over. If you do have input, on seating, consider the size of your audience and whether you want a formal or an informal arrangement. Theater style is great for large audiences and a formal lecture presentation. If your audience needs workspace, for notes or handouts, you may opt for classroom style or boardroom style. For smaller audiences and greater interactivity, you can’t beat a U-shape or Bistro style arrangement.
Presentation Adjustments: Seating arrangements can have a huge impact on your interaction with the audience. You don’t want to walk into a theater style arrangement with stacks of handouts and planned group activities. If you don’t have control over the seating arrangements, having this knowledge in advance will help you anticipate how to work with or work around the situation.
4. What is the lighting in the room?
Lighting can be a big surprise factor for speakers. Rooms with too much light can reduce visibility and the contrast of projected slides. Dark rooms can inhibit note-taking and impede a speaker’s ability to read audience reactions. As you’re scouting a room, you’ll want to be mindful of the time of day. The light in the room may change dramatically throughout the day. Are there curtains or blinds to control lighting? Can you ask an AV staff to lower or raise lights?
Presentation Adjustments: If you find yourself in a room with an abundance of light and no way to control it, you may need to adjust your slides for higher contrast. A dark colored background with white or yellow typography will often do the trick. As you design your slides, err on the side of caution. Avoid grays, screened-back color tints, or anything that may be too subtle.
5. What kind of projection will be used?
While HD flat screens are making appearances in meeting rooms and boardrooms, video projectors are by far the most common form of slide projection. Two things are important when it comes to video projectors: the lumens and the screen. The lumens are simply a measure of the projector’s brightness and can range from 2500 to 6000. For a handy reference, check out this guide. The screen on which you project your slides is also important. It’s impractical to expect you to become an expert in projection screen materials. As part of your room-reconnaissance it may be good to know where your slides will be displayed. I recently attended a meeting where the slides were projected directly onto a white board—complete with half-erased words.
Presentation Adjustments: If, during your research, you discover you’ll be projecting your slides through an ancient projector with inadequate lumens or showing your presentation on a yellow wall, you will have time to make arrangements or rethink your approach. In most cases, you will be at the mercy of the venue’s supplied equipment, however, you may be able to beg, borrow or rent an alternative.
The whole idea of “casing the joint” is to avoid taking any details for granted. In most cases, you won’t have control over permanent room features, but you can, with some foreknowledge, anticipate and possibly mitigate their impact on your presentation.